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Unresponsive to Playground and Classroom Directions


A child will not come in from playing on the playground, and ignores the teachers request? This child runs to the other side of the playground.  He will not join others for
story time, refuses to wash his hands before snack time, and refuses a nap.

What is the very best way to get the child out of the play ground and back into the classroom without causing the child a major upset? The natural consequences for not joining the other children for story time is he does not get to hear the story, and if the child refuses to wash his hands, he does not get a snack, and if he refuses a nap, he will have to go home from school tired.

Thank for your help in advance,



Dear Carol,

My name is Laurie Prusso.  I am one of the people who answer the questions that come in from the field.  Currently, I am an Instructor of Child Development at a community college in California.  In addition I am the mother of six sons and grandmother to 12.  I have taught preschool, directed a preschool, and have been the instructor in the laboratory school on our campus. Your little friend sounds like many children that I have known and worked with.

I’m not sure what kind of program you are involved with; however, since you offer naps, I’m assuming that it is full-day care. I will make some guesses, based on your descriptions.  Children often demonstrate ranges of typical behavior. In the preschool years, impulse control is just beginning to develop. We know this through many studies, and now through neuroscience and imaging technology, we can actually see what parts of the brain are active. While most three and four year old children in early education programs seem to be able to conform to our schedules and directions, there will naturally be a few who won’t. These are usually my favorites! They are often high energy, creative, and curious children who get involved in what they are doing, and don’t like to stop. They also don’t respond very well to demands and commands. Without knowing anything about this child or your program, I am going to depend upon what we DO know about behavior.

All behavior is goal oriented.  Children are always looking for loving and caring relationships with adults and children in their lives. Their underlying goal is to belong and to feel significant.  Many children enter our programs with a strong sense of security and a good set of social skills.  These children are the most likely to be successful and get along.  For many reasons, other children are not ready to meet the demands of our program days yet so we need to adapt our expectations while they develop security and skills. They need our assistance and understanding if they are to become successful in group settings and later in school classrooms. Relationships lead behavior. Our job as teachers is to provide real training and encouragement for the skills we want them to have.  Punishment doesn’t work well, and most “consequences” feel like punishment to children. Our own attitude of caring and patience, along with respectful interactions (us being respectful to the child) is our best chance for ourselves and for the child.

The behavior you describe sounds to me like the child is seeking belonging and significance by mistakenly using attention getting activities. He is having fun at your expense and you are annoyed and irritated with him.  As adults, it is more effective for us to ask, “What can I do differently here?” than to ask, “How can I get this child to _________?”  I noticed from your letter that his mistaken behavior often occurs around transitions.  This is typical of children exhibiting undue attention behaviors.

By changing some of your patterns, and those of the other caregivers who work with him, you can support this child in getting along better and learning effective social skills that will help him succeed.  One of the most effective things you can do, and this is especially effective because of the predictability of his “unresponsiveness to directions”, is to head him off at the pass.  Consider the times when his undesirable behaviors irritate and annoy you. Think of ways that you can involve him, prior to the misbehavior, in getting ready for and helping with these transitions.

Here are some ideas.  About 5 minutes before it is going to be announced that it is time to come in and get ready for story time, seek him out.  Don’t call to him, go to him.  Invite him to ring the bell, blow the whistle, or give whatever sign you give that play time is ending and it will be story time.  Invite him to carry the book, set out the mats, hold the finger puppets or pass them out to children, or include him in a meaningful way in what is about to happen.  You can do the same thing for hand washing and snack.  There are many tasks that children can be doing to support their learning and make the day more meaningful to them.  When children feel involved and make contributions they feel significant and that they belong.  In fact, all children benefit from such involvement, but especially children demonstrating attention getting behaviors.  

You may feel that you are giving him “privileges” by doing this, but right now, this is what he needs. Later, as time goes on, you can thoughtfully plan for all children to be involved in such meaningful contributions, but right now, you are helping him. Do not withhold or deprive him of helping because he takes too long to come in, or doesn’t wash his hands.  These are the tools that will help him learn how to cooperate.

Naptime is troublesome for many children. Where I live, the licensing laws require that naps must be offered, but children may not be compelled to stay in place or sleep. Many three and four year olds do not nap and many who are very active and wide awake perceive naptime as torture.  I recommend that you create a space in your classroom for children who may be in this category.  It can be a quiet spot with quiet toys, play dough, paper, scissors, etc.  Some teachers fear that if they “let” one child “get away with it” all the others will follow.  This is not usually the case at nap time or circle time.  Most children want to conform and to participate. A few may follow him, but if they are tired, they will retreat to their cots.  I can tell you that none of my children or grandchildren was still napping by the age of three and that many children, by this time of year, are just done with naps.  The fact that most of your children do stay in place and or sleep is not evidence that all children should or will. It is probably evidence that they will do what they are told to do.

Children who are in full day care are under stress. They are away from parents. They are in group care. They are expected to conform to schedules and “share” everything in the environment.  It probably isn’t realistic to think that every child will be able to meet our expectations for obedience and conformity. You can do a lot to support and help him by feeling optimistic about his opportunities to learn and your abilities to teach.  Use your heart, your head, and your intuition. You will know what he needs. You may want to start with the things below.

When he arrives, does he feel that you are just head-over-heels glad that he has come?  Does he get a warm hug and a smile? The same should occur when he is leaving.  Teachers can convey that they will miss him so much until he returns. Implementing these belonging and significance rituals, along with the invitations to contribute to the classroom activities, will result in him “learning” other, more effective ways to get along. A month or so of him experiencing the new you will give him time to trust that it is safe for him to change too.  

I’d like to make one final suggestion.  I work with teachers of young children every day.  We can really make a difference in the lives of children like this if we can just smile and have fun with them a little more.  It is possible that this child needs to have a little more sense of control about what he does and when he does it.  Creating space for him to have a say in what happens and how he does things can be a wonderful opportunity that you can provide; the alternative is to make him into a  behavior problem. Imagine what his world is like.  To him it may feel like, “Do this.  Now do this.  Now do this.  And finally, do this! And if you don’t, you will not get to __________”   That is what it is like in many centers that I visit.  Laugh with him.  Play with him and give him a graceful way to be a part of the community without strings attached.  Punishing him is the least effective thing to do.

I recommend the book Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and many of the other Positive Discipline materials.  They will help you understand the relationship between the child’s behavior and adult invitations and responses.  You really can make a difference and have a happier time at work if you learn about the Positive Discipline way.  It is amazing to see the changes that occur not only in the children, but especially in the adults who have a beautiful new perspective on how to support and encourage children in their learning experiences.

I wish you the best of luck.  Please let us know if you try these ideas out.

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